Leonidas Polk, Sewanee’s fighting bishop

No. 262

by Jacquelyn Procter Reeves

FOUR Confederate generals, along with members of their staff, walked to the top of a hill just outside Marietta, Georgia. It was the warm humid morning of June 14, 1864 and the sun was already high in the sky. Unbeknownst to them, they were watched by Union soldiers who took advantage of the opportunity that lay before them. Within minutes, 58-­year­-old Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, who was thought to be in prayer, was hit. His death was gruesome, but immediate.

In his right coat pocket were four blood­soaked copies of “Balm for the Weary and Wounded,” three of which had been inscribed to General Joseph E. Johnston, Lieutenant-­General William Hardee, and Lieutenant­-General John Bell Hood. The fourth had been inscribed with his own name. General Polk had planned to present them later that day.

Leonidas “Sewanee’s Fighting Bishop” Polk, a second­-cousin to President James K. Polk, was born in April, 1806 in North Carolina. His father, William Polk, served as a major in the 9th North Carolina Regiment during the American Revolution. He was one of the men who suffered through the miserable encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the winter of 1777-­1778.

Leonidas Polk attended West Point Military Academy in the same era as others who would later become famous in the same war: Albert Sidney Johnston, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee. Polk graduated in 1827 – 8th in his class of 38 — but the army wasn’t his calling. After six months in the military, and to his father’s great disappointment, Polk resigned to enter the Virginia Theological Seminary.

Lady Luck smiled upon the Polk family when Leonidas’s father, William Polk, was appointed chief surveyor for central Tennessee. William Polk acquired an astounding 100,000 acres of land, including a tract of nearly 6,000 acres named “Rattle and Snap,” because he won it in a bean game.

In the early 1830s, Leonidas Polk and three of his brothers moved to Tennessee and built large mansions on the Rattle and Snap tract. Their plantations were named Ashwood Hall, Hamilton Place, West Brook, and Rattle and Snap. Where the four corners of their plantations were joined, a simple chapel was built so their families and slaves could worship together. St. John’s Episcopal Church, as well as the plantation homes, would play significant roles in the upcoming War Between the States.

Soon he was serving as the priest at historic St. Peter’s Church in nearby Columbia. In the 1840s, he was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, an area that encompassed nearly a million square miles. By 1850, he possessed a title, legacy, and great wealth. At this time, Bishop Polk was married, and the father of eight children. The 1850 census of Maury County, Tennessee indicates he owned 215 slaves, although some sources say that number was much higher.

Bishop Polk was a key founder of Sewanee’s University of the South, along with another well­-known bishop who served in that area, James Hervey Otey. Otey envisioned a college where young men would be trained in literary and theological subjects while Polk wanted it to be the equivalent of England’s Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Polk laid the cornerstone in 1860 and Otey served as first chancellor.